Student Engineering Design Teams Give Glimpse of the Future
More than 350 undergraduate engineering students presented their innovations at the 2014 UA College of Engineering Design Day.
NASA's instructions were clear: Make the MUTT smaller while preserving its flight capabilities.
"So that's what we did," said Ian Haubert, a graduating senior in aerospace engineering at the UA College of Engineering. "Our job was to scale it down, in terms of both size and flight dynamics."
The X-56A MUTT, which stands for Multi-Use Technology Testbed, is a small unmanned aircraft being developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to test technologies that will be needed for new kinds of lightweight, flexible aircraft.
Haubert is one of 352 engineering seniors who participated in the 2014 Engineering Design Day on Tuesday, during which student teams presented projects they have been working on since the fall semester. Judges from national and local engineering firms rated the 64 designs on display and selected winners for 20 cash prizes, also provided by industry partners. Various industry-related companies sponsor many of the creations, which could go on to be real commercial products.
Haubert's team was tasked with developing a puppy version of MUTT that could do the same tricks as the big dog. The result is MACO, short for "Modular Aircraft for Conceptual Operations," which looks just like MUTT, but has a wingspan of just over 9 feet instead of 28 and weighs just over 16 pounds as opposed to 480.
The prototype is designed in such a way that wings with different geometries can be attached to the same fuselage without making major revisions to the design.
"MACO is our proof-of-concept for an autonomous modular plane," Haubert explained. "We can take the wings off, swap the batteries and be flight-ready in 10 minutes."
During Engineering Design Day, the North Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center was abuzz with the chatter of engineering experts, faculty, students and spectators flocking around contraptions ranging from a new generation of cameras trained to spot the tiniest imperfections in newly manufactured automotive dashboards to a resistance suit for astronauts to counter bone and muscle loss caused by extended periods in zero gravity all the way to a 10-foot rocket capable of carrying a 10-pound payload to a specific altitude. Outside, on the UA Mall, a robot lawn mower drew circles on the grass, while another team had propped up the hood of a retrofitted 1977 Triumph Spitfire sports car modified with an electric powertrain that can be hooked up to a helicopter turbine.
For the students, the hands-on experience they gain through the engineering design challenges given to them by their industry sponsors translate into real-world know-how and often are the ticket into their first job.
"Instead of a GPA, you get to see students do actual work," said Jon Schwab, a systems engineer with Tucson Embedded Systems, a company specializing in the design and production of industrial digital engine controllers. "You see how they think, how they solve problems – criteria that don't show up on resumes."
In addition to helping with marketing, sponsoring a project like the turbine-powered hybrid engine gives his company a small testbed without having to invest large amounts of money, sad Schwab, who graduated from the UA engineering program in 2005 and has mentored engineering students ever since.
"Students usually have a different perspectives than us seasoned engineers, and they bring fresh ideas to the table," he said, adding that his company has hired about half a dozen UA grads since he started there.
Many of the projects are handed down through the generations of engineering seniors. The next team working on MACO, the modular plane, will have to improve the prototype so it can fly autonomously, without the need of a "pilot" on the ground controlling the plane's rudders and engine with a remote control.
"First you want to make sure it's flyable, then you work on making it autonomous," said Haubert, who has already landed a job as a manufacturing engineer at Raytheon.
At the end of the day, the efforts of Haubert's team have paid off: The judges recognized MACO with the Rincon Research Best Presentation Award, which comes with a check of $1,000.
For a complete list of projects presented at the 2014 Engineering Design Day, visit the UA College of Engineering website (PDF).
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